The oil and gas industry and the companies and executives in it are not usually found at the top of a “most trusted” list. Instead, they are frequently the objects of suspicion and criticism by Americans, despite the fact that energy is critical to our quality of life.
In the 1970s, for example, many people were convinced that petroleum shortages and high oil prices were orchestrated by the energy companies. Decades later, oil spills such as the Exxon Valdez and BP’s Deepwater Horizon, were proof to some that energy companies sacrifice safety for profit. And today, a growing number of energy industry critics regard hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” as a technology that causes a spate of environmental problems. Even recent drops in the price of gasoline and natural gas have not dramatically changed negative public perception of oil and gas companies and their leaders.
As our parents taught us, trust is earned, and once lost, is hard – though not impossible – to regain. Getting Americans to trust or regain trust in energy companies will not be easy. It will depend on a number of factors – among them, the ability of those who run those companies to communicate trust. Communicating trust is a skill that can be learned, practiced and perfected.
Here are our insights on what energy company execs need to do to promote trust:
First and foremost, communicate.
Most companies clam up when the news is bad, when times are tough or when they are under attack. But these are times for more, not less communication. Right now, many oil and gas firms and companies that provide them with products and services are laying off employees. In Texas alone, 56,000 energy sector jobs have disappeared since December of last year. And another 9,000 jobs in that sector are predicted to be eliminated in the state in 2016. Let’s hope these companies are ramping up their communications – to employees, customers, vendors, analysts, shareholders and the news media – in person, on video, in print, on social media. (Wishful thinking?)
Hydraulic fracturing is not new; it’s been around for more than sixty years. But because the industry has not done a good job of communicating what it is and its benefits, fracking opponents have succeeded in demonizing this established technology.
Communicating with the news media is no longer a spectator sport for executives
One of the most dramatic changes in corporate media relations has been the shift from relying solely on one individual (usually someone in PR) as the spokesperson for the company. During the Valdez oil spill of 1989, the Exxon chairman initially failed to do this. He did not comment for six days – sending out several lower-ranking employees to deal with the press. Today, top executives must be prepared to speak for the corporation – through sit-down or stand-up informational interviews, satellite interviews, press briefings and news conferences. They must put themselves in direct contact with the news media. Reporters and the public expect it.
Use language of the living room
Executives who speak plainly generate trust and credibility. They avoid jargon and abstractions They use simple words, contractions and uncomplicated sentence structure. This kind of language resonates with people who are fed up with “corporate speak” and words and phrasing that sound “guarded,” stiff and like they came from speechwriters.
Show your softer side
Research shows that there are a number of factors that help people see someone as trustworthy or credible. One is the ability to express empathy and caring. And it’s a big one; it accounts for half of a person’s credibility, and it’s assessed in the first thirty seconds. Also, it’s all or nothing – you’re judged either as empathetic or not; there’s no in between. That’s why it’s critical for an energy industry executive to express sorrow or concern when there’s been an injury, fatality or environmental impact in an accident. Unfortunately, technical training and male communication patterns tend to drive out expressions of empathy and caring. And guess what? Oil and gas executives tend to be technically trained and men. If they want to build trust, they must be willing to show their softer side.
Few things contribute to credibility more than someone’s knowledge or expertise. There are several ways to showcase your expertise:
Provide details. Avoid mere generalizations. Many people criticize politicians for failing to be specific. And currently, Donald Trump seems to be getting the bulk of that criticism – not just for what he wants to accomplish, but also for not providing details of how he’ll do it.
Offer examples. Their power lies in reality; they’re a slice of life. Of all the points or arguments you can make, those based on examples are the least vulnerable to being refuted.
Highlight your credentials. Many energy industry executives have impressive backgrounds. They’re engineers, MBAs and PhDs. Find appropriate ways to reveal your professional background. Doing so will help you be seen as a trusted spokesperson.
Utilize credibility transference. You can enhance credibility by coordinating your activities or forming alliances with other credible sources. For example, quote supporting statements made by other credible sources such as individuals perceived to be neutral, respected, well informed about the issue; professors (especially those from respected universities); physicians and other health care professionals; law enforcement officials; not-for-profit organizations.